Winston-Salem as a Proxy for Every Other Not-Huge City

Earlier this week the New York Times ran a story titled “Why Midsize Cities Struggle to Catch Up to Superstar Cities” and used Winston-Salem, NC as the focus. Of course, that caught the attention of those of us who live in the Camel City and as a result, many of us have read the article. I will say this: I think the reporter largely hit the mark on the challenges faced by Winston-Salem and other midsize cities in America.

The article rightly points out that a primary challenge for most smaller cities in the country is that they were largely built on the backs of manufacturing at a time when their less expensive labor pool made them attractive places for companies to locate their operations. When global trade happened in the latter part of the 20th century that advantage evaporated and, voila, seemingly every “non-elite” city in America was in the position of trying to reinvent itself for the new economy.

In Winston-Salem, that process started back in the ’80s and ’90s and the extended economic redevelopment work has begun to pay dividends. Fifteen years ago when my wife and I moved our family here the downtown was largely a ghost town after 5 p.m., but now it’s thriving. Hell, using the “Brewery Benchmark,” Winston-Salem is exploding. I can’t say there have been a whole lot of economic development home runs – things like Amazon’s second HQ – but there have been a whole bunch of singles and doubles. And honestly, I think that could be a good thing: growing slowly helps us avoid the boom town headaches of skyrocketing housing prices, traffic congestion, and overcrowded schools.

Probably my favorite part of the article, the part that I think really rings true when you look at Winston-Salem as compared to comparable cities, is this:

If any middling city can make a transition to a technology-centered future, however, Winston-Salem should. It is home to five universities, including Wake Forest, an institution that enrolls four out of its five students from out of state. Transplanted to Winston-Salem in the mid-1950s under the Reynolds family’s patronage from its original site near Raleigh, the university has a leading medical school, which it hopes will anchor a biotech ecosystem.

“The top talent is going to go to the coasts, no doubt about that,” said Graydon Pleasants, head of real estate development for the Innovation Quarter. “But there are plenty of smart people who will come here.”

The article points out what I see as Winston-Salem’s most pressing challenge as well: slow wage growth coupled with housing costs that are rising at a much faster rate. If as a community we can figure out how to fix that while continuing to grow then I think we’ll be in a much better place.

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